It was very common practice in antiquity for the author of a book or letter to use a scribe/amanuensis (see descriptions in letters of Cicero, for example), and the use of a scribe is attested or implied by some New Testament documents, e.g. Tertius in Romans, possibly Silas in 1 Peter, the “we” in John 21:24:

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

I have no difficulty believing a well-traveled 1st century Galilean spoke Greek (see here), but I suspect the services of a scribe would be of great benefit in setting a full Gospel down in writing.

I am intrigued by a passage from the “Anti-Marcionite” prologue to John:

“The Gospel of John was revealed and given to the churches by John while still in the body, just as Papias of Hieropolis, the close disciple of John, related in the exoterics, that is, in the last five books. Indeed he wrote down the gospel, while John was dictating carefully” (translation by De Bruyne)

The prologue has been variously dated from the 2nd to the 4th century. Papias lived in Hieropolis; Irenaeus tells us John resided in Ephesus (a few days' journey away) until the times of Trajan (see vs 4 here), well within the adult lifetime of Papias.

Unfortunately, Eusebius says nothing about this. Given Eusebius’ general dislike for Papias, and his efforts (contra-Irenaeus in chapter 39 here) to downplay Papias’ possible association with John, this is not all that surprising.

Although Papias’ writings are lost and we can’t directly fact check the prologue, what intrigues me is that whoever wrote the prologue knew that their readers could fact check it. And the prologue was still considered credible enough that it shows up in 10 different surviving manuscripts.

How credible is this statement? Is it likely that Papias was the amanuensis for the Gospel of John?


4 Answers 4


I am interested in thoughts others may have, but will also share my own musings. Though the Anti-Marcionite prologues are terribly difficult to fact check, and have often (perhaps just a little too quickly) been discarded as sources of history, the piece of the prologue that commands my attention is the fact that the prologue cited a known source—a source that was in a position to know this information—and a source that the readers at the time could go check.

The fact that this prologue was sufficiently trusted to spread over multiple countries, multiple languages, and multiple centuries, suggests to me that it was not blatantly contradicted by the source it cited.

Recent scholarship suggesting Papias did say something about John’s Gospel

A number of recent scholars have suggested that Papias did say something about the Gospel of John—see especially Hill & Manor – and Hill even argues that Eusebius’ testimony on the composition of John is a paraphrase of Papias.

Irenaeus tells us that Papias knew John (see vs. 4 here ), and as noted in the OP, they lived near each other at the same time.

Possible interpretations

I see 3 sensible options in interpreting this passage:

  1. Papias really did make the claim in question—that he was John’s scribe.

  2. Papias said something about the Gospel of John and the author of the prologue misunderstood it.

  3. The relevant passage should be read as 2 separate claims, only the first of which comes from the writings of Papias:

    • “The Gospel of John was revealed and given to the churches by John
      while still in the body”
    • “Indeed he wrote down the gospel, while John was dictating

Which interpretation is most likely

Although any of the 3 options is at least plausible, option 2 seems the easiest to accept. Given the multitude of contradictory interpretations of Papias today the idea that somebody could misinterpret him isn’t hard to believe. Option 3 is certainly not the most intuitive reading of the passage, but I wouldn’t rule it out. (how, one might ask, did the prologue justify the claim that Papias was the scribe if Papias himself was silent on the matter?)

As for option 1, I suppose it could be divided still further. It could mean:

  1. Papias was the scribe for the Gospel of John.
  2. Papias was the scribe for a portion of the Gospel of John (many believe it was written in at least 2 editions)
  3. Papias was the scribe for something else John wrote, possibly including the epistles or the Apocalypse.

One more question we can hope to answer if a copy of the writings of Papias is ever discovered.

Unintended implications

One final thought…I listed what to me appear to be 3 realistic interpretations of the prologue and what Papias said. Though it wasn’t my intent as I brainstormed the possibilities, in reconsidering them I realize that under any of these 3 interpretations, Papias did say something about John writing the Gospel.

That would make Papias our earliest source for Johannine authorship—that is potentially a really big deal. If Papias believed John was the author of John—and I’ve yet to see an interpretation of the prologue persuasively suggesting otherwise—that almost certainly means John really was the author of the Gospel that bears his name.


I was recently thinking about the same thing and that is to entertain some doubts about the conventional doubting of this reference being authentic.

Here is a thought on why Papias being an amanuensis for John, and possible dialog partner with him during his dictation, might be considered more plausible than conventionally accepted.

Papias was from Hierapolis, an ancient Greek city located on hot springs in classical Phrygia in southwestern Anatolia.

Phrygia was known for being an epicenter of Dionysian/Bacchus worship. There is a lot of parallelism in the 4th Gospel with Bacchus worship. Dennis R. MacDonald picks up on some of this parallelism in his various talks that can be found on YouTube.

Hierapolis was also the place where Epictetus (50 - 130 A.D.) was born. He is best known for developing & expanding the understanding of the concept of logos, which had its roots in the teaching of Heraclitus.

"According to Epictetus, the logos is the underlying form of the perceived world which sets the parameters of the human experience and maintains the order of the universe by immutable laws." https://www.ancient.eu/Epictetus/

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  • Thank you for this information.
    – Betho's
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 6:56

The anti-Marcionite prologue isn't the only source that records that Papias served as John's amanuensis. There's a note found in Codex Vaticanus Alexandrinus 14 that reads, "The gospel of John was made known and given to the Churches by John, while he yet remained in the body; as one Papias by name, of Hierapolis, a beloved disciple of John, has related in his five exegetical books. Indeed, he accurately wrote the gospel as John dictated." This is usually designated Fragment 18.

A note follows relating how Marcion was rejected by Papias.


I was doing a post-graduate course in 2009-2010 with Rev. Dr. Craig Evans, noted Qumran scroll scholar, at Acadia Divinity College, Acadia University, when I noted that Papias was mentioned in the scrolls as the scribe who wrote down the words of John the Elder, John the Apostle. When brought to his attention, Dr. Evans was surprised to see this but, upon examination, confirmed the presence of this notation in the scroll fragment. As it was the last day of the course, I left it with him for further mention. However, I can confirm the presence of confirmation that Papias was spoken of as the scribe who wrote down the words of John the Apostle, later known as John the Elder. - Rev. Dr. Don Doherty, 2024/02/25

  • Welcome to BH. Your insight is fascinating! Which scroll was that? According to the Muratorian Canon ca. 180, "The author of the fourth Gospel is John." I've always been intrigued by Vernard Eller's book, The Beloved Disciple, in which he makes a case that Lazarus was "the beloved disciple based in a small part on John 11:3,5 ESV, "So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”", "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus." But, I must defer to the written accounts of the early Christians.
    – Dieter
    Commented Feb 25 at 21:32

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